Welcome to my module. And, please, make yourself at home. There is nothing sacred here. You are in my mind. I am inventing you. You are sitting next to me in my Buick with your stocking feet up on the dash and your arm hanging out the window. The highway stretches out in front of us forever and the wind in your hair feels like salvation. I am raging and banging on the steering wheel, my voice lost on the wind. Yet, my bitter thoughts fill your mind.For 50 years the children's book has allowed itself to be marginalized by the Literary Establishment! There is no critical culture surrounding children's literature, just decades of excruciating plot summary and frivolous anecdote. Literary value is measured on a scale of “delightful” to “charming”. An endless stream of pablum, bank-rolled by a cynical publishing industry. Look at those Harry Potter books! Gee, let's see, didn't Jane Yolen write that story in 1991? Did anybody write about that? No! And what about those Dumb Bunny books by Dav Pilkey? If James Marshall was still alive, that Pilkey fella might be in jail right now! The delightful and the charming come at a cost, and the price must not go unquoted! We must rise up, you and I, and breathe bitter life into this happy corpse, the children's book! I bang the steering wheel one last time, sweating like a pig. You nod vaguely and turn to me. “God, I'm hungry,” you say, “and I have to pee. Does your module have a bathroom?”
HANG IN THERE, LEN, FRIDAY’S COMIN’!
The Story of Little Guy and Fat Cat and the Death of Capitalism
by A. Bitterman
It’s always the Little Guy, you know? The economy collapses and everybody starts worrying about the Little Guy. “Is the Little Guy okay?” they wonder. I can’t tell you how many times in recent weeks somebody’s stopped me in the grocery store aisle with that pained expression reserved for chemo patients and dead relatives and ventured the question: “Has the economy affected your business?” If it’s a friend or someone I actually know I cheer them up with a punch line that doubles as an absolution if need be – “What difference does it make? Business always sucks,” I say – and we have a little laugh together. It’s a polite way of saying that one should worry about the Little Guy when the economy is good because that’s when we tend to forget about him entirely.
More often though the concerned party is not a friend but rather someone who just barely registers in the wasteland of my retail cortex – a ghost – someone I haven’t seen for a long, long time, someone who professes their love for the Little Guy but no longer patronizes the Little Guy, for whatever reason, and now they feel crummy about it. The deserter. “We’re hangin’ in there,” I say. “Thanks for asking, man. Do you know where the Drano is?”
In fact, now is not the time to worry about the Little Guy. Forget about the Little Guy. Your intentions are good but the impulse is pure nostalgia. First of all, there aren’t many Little Guys left. Those of us who have survived into the 21st century are like the weird fungi you find in the drip tray of your refrigerator. We are here not because of the economy but because we have survived the economy. We live in the sweaty folds and dark crannies of the Fat Cat who is now in a boatload of trouble, struggling to navigate a global economic system on the verge of turning itself inside out. It’s the Fat Cat we should be worried about. We need to face facts. Alas, the unsustainable model of overproduction so precariously perched upon the impossible notion of infinite growth that has fueled our dreams of prosperity since WWII is coming to an end. Bummer. We should at least make an outward effort, if only a gesture, to try and save it.
This is why the Reading Reptile is hosting a bake sale for Barnes & Noble on December 13th. It is our way of saying, “Hang in there, you crazy predatory megastore!” It’s symbolic of course, but the giant card we are sending with the proceeds from the bake sale should be pretty neat, and it will undoubtedly provide much-needed encouragement to CEO Lenny Riggio during his downward spiral. We hope that you will join us in signing the card. We will also be sending a relief package that will include a nice bottle of Chivas and some chocolates. That’s about all we can do, but there are some other things that you, as a dutiful consumer, might consider doing as a courtesy to prop up the B&N bottom line and generally prolong the culture of excess:
BUY A BOOK AND THEN RETURN IT This is an excellent way to stimulate superstore sales in the short term while replenishing inventory, and at no cost to you. The fact of the matter is publishers will be constricting their inventory sharply in the next few months. The superstores are going to need to move those books then get them back, and quick!
WALK IN AND OUT OF A STORE A LOT OF TIMES There’s a counter between those doors! Walk in and out of your favorite superstore over and over again, for like an hour. This will look good on shareholder reports showing strong foot traffic against weak same-store sales suggesting potential for future revenue streams.
HAVE MORE KIDS Have as many kids as you can, supply them with debit cards and cell phones, and teach them to be suspicious of locally owned businesses.
AVOID SIDEWALKS Try not to use sidewalks. Sidewalks tend to be in front of small, independently owned businesses. Pretend that sidewalks are relics from the Cold War.
BUY A HUMMER What the hell! You deserve it.
TEN SECONDS: Running the Hurdles with Harry Potter
by A. Bitterman, May 2007
So this lady comes in the store and she says, “I need a book for a six-year-old girl.” I move toward the beginning reader and early chapter books.
“Is it a gift?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “It’s her birthday. I want something nice.”
“Do her parents read with her?”
“Yes…” The lady hesitates. “…But she’s reading herself. She’s very advanced.”
I reach for Jenny and the Cat Club, by Esther Averill, and hand it to her. She accepts it doubtfully and makes a cursory inspection. While I describe it, I see her measure the spine of the book with her eyes and I know what’s coming. The lady shakes her head politely and hands the book back to me.
“Too many pictures. I’m afraid you don’t understand.”
I stare at her blankly like I don’t understand. In truth, I am enjoying the moment and holding it there, as if she has a gun in her pocket and I will not let her rob me until she shows me the weapon. The moment hangs, and then she unloads.
“She’s reading Harry Potter. All by herself. It’s really quite remarkable. I mean she really reads them. She’s on the third book already!”
I give her a moment to catch her breath and steady her with a look of mild surprise. This is where it gets tricky.
In the next 10 seconds I will either make a sale or lose a sale. I know this because I’ve faced this predicament a thousand times over the last six or seven years, with mixed results. It is a recurring dream in the mixed-up life of a children’s bookseller, in the midst of which lies the Harry Potter dilemma.
While the dream itself is encased in a 10 second interval, the magnitude of the dilemma touches on everything that is right and wrong about children and reading. The lady waits, the clock starts, and my mind is off and running.
TEN (Anger): The first second is always bitter. Has anyone not read Harry Potter? I imagine my customer entering the store accompanied by her prize-winning shih tzu. She asks for the fourth Harry Potter book. I ring her up and ask her if she wants a bag. She declines, hands the book to her dog and says, “He’ll have the first four chapters read before we get home!”
NINE (Empathy): I correct myself. Why vilify the customer? Her intentions are good. She just wants what seems best for the child. She’s excited. I remember being excited about Harry Potter. It was the summer of 1998. A box of galleys arrived at the store, among them Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I rarely sample fiction before it’s published, but I read that one. Coincidentally, a guy named Arthur Levine was in Kansas City that September for a conference. He stopped by the store and we ended up going for breakfast. Arthur had written some children’s books at the time but he had a larger reputation as a gifted editor and had recently secured his own imprint as such with Scholastic – Arthur Levine Books. It was a big deal. Editors are a dime-a-dozen in New York, but when you get your own imprint you become a tastemaker. And when you’re Arthur’s age, with your whole career in front of you, you have a lot to lose. Arthur was nervous and excited about his upcoming fall list. We talked about a lot of books and forthcoming projects, but there was one book he was particularly anxious about. Scholastic had laid out a hefty sum for it. It was a bestseller in Britain. They were printing 50,000 of them.
“You mean that Harry Potter book?” I asked. “I just read that one.”
Arthur looked at me cautiously. “Did you like it?”
“Hell Yes,” I said. “It’s the best damn book on the list. We ordered 50 of them.”
Arthur looked genuinely relieved. Imagine that. Me – a lowly, midwestern bookseller – comforting Arthur Levine. In two short years, he would be riding herd on the biggest publicity drive in children’s books since, well…never. Had I been able to see into the future, I may have tempered my enthusiasm somewhat. And let him pick up the tab.
EIGHT (Depression): Those were the days. Now I’m standing here in front of this lady nine years later trying to find a book thick enough for her brilliant six-year-old. Thanks Arthur. It’s bizarre, and troubling. I think about Jenny and the Cat Club, My Father’s Dragon, Randall Jarrell’s Animal Family, and all the treasures this young genius may never read because they have too many pictures and they aren’t thick enough. Somewhere along the line Harry Potter has become an arbitrary benchmark, something much different than the literary cure-all it’s still touted to be. The fact is Harry Potter has stolen as many readers as it has inspired. Banished them to strange criteria of weight and size, and hype. “Big” books are now published in the hundreds of thousands, stacked up like buildings in stores where most of the employees have never even heard of Angela Johnson or Jack Gantos, Tor Seidler or Polly Horvath.
SEVEN (Avoidance): I take a second and wonder what Polly Horvath looks like. I’m thinking a cross between Shelley Duvall and Bjork. Polly Horvath wrote a book for 9-12 year olds called The Canning Season. It won the National Book Award in 2003. It’s a wonderful book but nearly impossible to sell. It features two spinsters in Maine who swear like sailors. The characters are so well rendered even the f-word slips by without a second thought. It is perhaps the best book ever written for children that no child will ever read. I notice we have a hardcover copy of it on the shelf. My demon rises. There’s an interesting idea. With a little attitude and a selective pitch I could actually sell this lady The Canning Season. She’ll never know what hit her until it’s too late, when her little darling writes her a thank you note that says, “Dear Aunt Tillie: Thanks for the book. It was fucking great!” Polly would never forgive me.
SIX (Self-pity): This is such a drag. No matter what I think about this lady, it’s not about her. It’s about the kid. A good children’s bookseller always sells to the kid regardless of the fact that 80% of those sales filter through adults. I wish the six-year-old were here, but she’s not; I wonder what she’s really like?
The power and the humility of selling children’s books well is what sets it apart from any other retail event. Adults, by and large, are clueless about children’s literature. Sometimes they mumble a few words to me that may be part of a title or a description of something they heard about, and I retrieve the book in question, and they are amazed as if I had conjured a tiger’s head from beneath the lid of a toilet seat. What’s humiliating is the little knowledge they do have – the Junie B. Jones, the Berenstain Bears, even the Harry Potter – that so much of the time hinders any real escape from Egypt. Kids get stuck in the quotidian and it takes all manner of patience and guile to help them become the readers their custodians wish them to be. Not just consumers, but real readers.
And so why, in a society that seems so desperate to foster a literate body politic, don’t grown-ups take the time to invest themselves in the knowledge of what it is their kids are reading, or could be reading? Why is it we always seem to want the best for our kids with the least amount of effort? Why is it we don’t have time to involve ourselves critically in the life of a child’s mind but we’ll drive to hell and back to get him to his next sporting event? Why am I pulling tigers out of toilet seats? What difference does it make?
FIVE (Resignation): We’re all just bitches to the publisher. This lady’s a bitch. I’m a bitch. And sadly there is a six-year-old girl in the middle, and she’s a bitch. All of us treading water and turning tricks in economies of scale.
In the mid-nineteen nineties bookselling changed forever with the advent of the “super” store and the online retailer. By the turn of the century, book distribution had been consolidated to the point where publishers no longer needed their people in the trenches, the infantry of independent booksellers who for decades had helped shape the literary landscape. Instead, publishers could simply call on a few major accounts like Barnes and Noble, Borders and amazon.com to concoct broad-based, unified marketing campaigns for virtually any book of their choosing. The designation “bestseller,” once a privileged status of forged consensus, was soon to become a predetermined selling point.
By the time the Harry Potter franchise was ready to emerge in full force, Scholastic enjoyed a unique moment in publishing history that would not repeat itself. Harry Potter’s American debut had risen on a wave (the last wave?) of genuine enthusiasm from within the battered and dwindling ranks of independent booksellers. In those first couple years, we dared claim Harry as one of our own. But when the wave crested it broke a different way, along party lines established in the new consolidated paradigm. With inevitable precision, Scholastic stopped issuing advanced reading copies of the forthcoming books and began issuing unprecedented release contracts to booksellers, turning their backs on the very group of people who had hand sold their little wizard to the forefront of the public imagination. It is no wonder that independent booksellers are just a little bit conflicted about Harry Potter, even more so when it shows up selling at Costco for less than what we can buy it for from the publisher direct.
FOUR (Clarity): Harry Potter is a marketing model, not a back-to-reading campaign. The lady I’m about to disappoint doesn’t make such distinctions. To her, and to most adults, consumption preempts quality. If I had a dime for every time somebody said, “At least my kid is reading!” I’d be a millionaire. If you work long enough in a children’s bookstore you might begin to think there is no such thing as a bad children’s book.
There are other forces besides cynical retail campaigns that keep kids and their elders from distinguishing quality in literature. The accelerated reader programs in place in most of the schools around the country reduce literature to a rote comprehensive exercise. Books are leveled and then scored according to some weird formula of word count, pagination, and vocabulary. As if books are nothing more than drivers’ manuals and the keys to the kingdom simply a matter of proficiency. Forget about the art. Forget about the craft. Forget about the passion. Read for the test. We may as well hire monkeys to write books since we’re making monkeys out of readers. It would be cheaper.
THREE (Free Association): Maybe I should wear a monkey suit? The bookselling monkey bitch. I could be like Koko in Koko’s Kitten. Okay, Koko’s an ape. Whatever. The disguise would obviate my human desires, my crises of faith. The lady would be startled, of course, at first. But if the suit was convincing enough her humanity would prevail and she would indulge my ape. She would speak slowly and earnestly to me about her little friend and how well she is reading. I would tilt my head the way apes do and take her hand gently in my own. She would gasp but not pull away. When she uttered the words “Harry Potter” I would nod vigorously and make cooing ape sounds. I would drop her hand and knuckle-walk over to the bookshelf, climb up it, and bring down a copy of Little Women. I would sit with the book in my lap and rock back and forth, patting it with my hand, making gestures from the book to my mouth as if to eat it. The lady would be amazed. She would lean down to me and carefully pry the book from my super-strong apelike grip.
“This is perfect,” she would say. “It was my favorite book growing up. Thank you, so much.”
I would swiftly rise to my feet and remove my ape head.
“You’re welcome. That’ll be $17.95. Do you want a bag?”
TWO (Acceptance): Ah, to be an ape. Time is running out. The lady is fidgeting. Deep down, I make my confession: I like Harry Potter. It’s the truth. It’s a very good series. There are better books, better writers, but unlike a lot of series that simply parlay off the success of a first book and become (in the best case) pleasantly episodic, J.K. Rowling is channeling a legitimate septet. Nonetheless, what Harry Potter is and what Scholastic is selling are two very different things. I’m reminded of Keith Richards famous quip: “I don’t have a drug problem, I have a police problem.” Similarly, I have no problem with Harry Potter, I have a problem with the police state Scholastic has engineered to administer my high. It just ain’t no fun anymore. And people are getting hurt.
To one degree or another the Harry Potter model has been acquired by every major publisher in the country. “Bestsellers” roll off the assembly line like Twinkies, regardless of merit. If you subscribe to the notion that the moral integrity of a society is inversely proportional to the number of laws required to maintain civil order, it is not a stretch to say that the literary integrity of a culture is likewise measurable by the number of bestsellers it must generate to survive.
Publishing is an actuarial affair. It always has been. But now that there are only a few of us left who know enough to call them into question, publishers can shove just about any old goddamn thing they want down our collective brainstem, and make money doing it. Oprah, The Today Show, Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley, plunk, plunk, plunk….
Why doesn’t Malcolm Gladwell write a book called “Plunk”? It would be a bestseller.
ONE (Resolve): The moment of truth. I look at the lady and I wonder how did I ever get to this place? There was no indication of this in my high school yearbook. Or in my college resume. Nothing to suggest “retail guy” or “children’s bookseller” or “father of five”. In a perfect world, I would have been vaporized in the back seat of Paul Wellstone’s airplane, or else I’d be rolling cigarettes on the edge of some desert somewhere putting the final touches on my 7th unpublished manuscript; from time to time I would make phone calls to my few remaining friends from a payphone just to tell them they were sell-outs. Instead, my shabby dreams are compromised in the matrix of necessity, a matrix made invisible by celebrity and a culture of regret. Here I stand in the riptide of unrecorded history, the retail moment, where only madness can account for putting principle above the bottom line. But then I figure it’s one customer at a time. And time’s up.
I walk to the shelf and grab a copy of Catwings, by Ursula LeGuin, and present it to the lady with both hands. She looks at me uncomfortably and I say, “I think it’s cool she’s reading Harry Potter already. I like Harry Potter. But if Harry Potter really existed, and the Dursley’s were nice people, this is what he would be reading at age six, and he’d like it a lot.”
The phone rings. I excuse myself and leave the lady standing there. I see my wife Debbie move in and engage her, and while I’m talking on the phone I see the lady shake her head again and gradually disappear out the front door. Easy come, easy go.
It’s hard to run a business when you actually give a shit. The money’s not always there, and that can be a problem. Or a blessing in disguise. After all, a good ape suit is expensive.
U.S. House Judiciary Committee Hearing on…
the use of performance-enhancing drugs in children’s books (H.R. 2323x)
(Excerpts from live C-SPANK congressional coverage, October 10th, 2006)
PRESIDING CHAIR: THE HONORABLE F. JAMES SENSENBRENNER, Jr. (R) Wisconsin 5th Dist.
LEAD WITNESS: A. BITTERMAN
FJS: Mr. Bitterman, before we begin, allow me to say for the record that in all my years as a back-scratching toady for the Republican party I never imagined I would have to spend an afternoon with the likes of you. A failed product of the Kansas state penal system, a one-time resident of Guantanamo Bay, and widely discredited as a plaintiff in a case brought against the federal government for not providing honey-roasted peanuts during your rendition to Syria, you are, in short, Mr. Bitterman, an enemy of the state. Welcome.
BIT: Thank you, your honor.
FJS: Now then, Mr. Bitterman, over the years you have conflated the very distinction between fact and fiction, making claims as unusual as to suggest that Oprah is responsible for 10% of the Global Warming effect, and most recently that the Zidane head-butt was actually pre-recorded before the World Cup Finals. We therefore have no reason to believe a word you say. Your current allegations, however, raise serious questions that even we, as political opportunists, can not ignore. We have only recently stemmed the tide of a sports world that has all but disintegrated into a veritable Superfund site of performance-enhancing chemicals. Now you say this threat to our children looms closer than we ever suspected, a shape-shifting chiminea in the very cradle of our nation’s future. What say you Bitterman?
BIT: Well, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “chiminea”, your honor, which is a popular portable backyard fire kettle. A chimera perhaps is the word you were looking for, and yeah I know for a fact that juicing is rampant in the children’s book industry. All you need to do is look at this year’s frontlist. Heck, I personally scored the cream for Michael Emberley last year.
FJS: Emberley? You mean the guy who writes those sex books?
BIT: Well, he illustrates them, sir. Yeah, I mean think about it. Robie Harris and Michael Emberley crank out banned books faster than the Fed can raise interest rates. It’s Perfectly Normal consistently tops the ALA’s list of most challenged books in the nation. Their latest book, It’s Not the Stork!, is destined for the bonfires of the far-right. That’s a lot of pressure out of the gate. A little go juice is in order, don’t you think? I mean, these are important books but Emberley’s not pimping an Escalade, your honor.
FJS: So you approve of Mr. Emberley’s behavior?
BIT: Well, yes and no. He’s an avid cyclist so the cream makes good sense. But if it were me, I’d use the clear.
FJS: You mean inject the substances?
BIT: Sure. That way you can combine things, like HGH, for a better yield of sustained productivity.
FJS: By HGH you mean Human Growth Hormone. Is this common too?
BIT: Are you familiar, sir, with the phrase: “Get your Sabuda on”?
FJS: You’re referring, I presume, to Robert Sabuda, the undisputed king of the modern pop-up book?
BIT: King, queen, whatever. Look, your honor, Sabuda’s on a pace to produce over 100 pop-up books by the year 2015. That’s like summiting Mt. Everest in less than an hour in a Speedo. It’s inhuman.
FJS: Do you have any first-hand evidence, Mr. Bitterman?
BIT: Of his Speedo?
FJS: No, you lunatic, we’re talking here about substance abuse!
BIT: Oh. Well, I don’t supply him if that’s what you mean. Have you ever met him, your honor? The guy looks younger every time I see him. And not just a little bit. And his feet, my god, they look like two loaves of bread in a Christmas catalogue.
FJS: You’re saying that this is a side effect of HGH?
BIT: Oh yeah. Sometimes the head swells too, like Van Allsburg. He cuts a slight figure, but that head. Whoa.
FJS: You’re speaking of the two-time Caldecott Medal winner, Chris Van Allsburg?
BIT: The one and only, sir. He and William Joyce are of the same pedigree I’d say – classic big-head examples of HGH fatigue. It’s tough, your honor, when the magnitude of your talent comes unaccompanied with ideas. There’s only so much an editor can do before you realize you’ve been making the same book for 20 years. You keep doping and hoping, and all the ideas you thought you had cause a cranial swelling.
FJS: How is this exemplified in Mr. Van Allsburg’s books, Mr. Bitterman? I happen to be very fond of his work.
BIT: It eventuates, your honor, in a kind of senility. His new book, Probuditi!, is a fine example. It employs all of Van Allsburg’s well-worn plot devices and visual acrobatics in the hopes that casting an African-American protagonist will somehow mitigate its inherent and laborious reflexivity.
FJS: Pardon me?
BIT: William Joyce’s new release provides a simpler case, your honor. Having run out of ideas altogether, Joyce has re-published A Day With Wilbur Robinson, originally published in 1993, as if it were appearing in print for the first time. He simply remade the cover. No where in the book or on the dust jacket does it confess a previous existence, beyond the fine print required by the Library of Congress. It’s a remarkable achievement really. The book is a simulacrum of…well, itself I suppose. That’s not just moxie, your honor. That’s the juice talking.
FJS: Simulacrum? Isn’t that baby formula?
BIT: Metaphorically speaking, sir, you might be on to something.
FJS: I’m not tracking you very well, Mr. Bitterman. I see here included in your deposition another two-time Caldecott winner, David Wiesner. Is his head also of unusual size?
BIT: No sir. He has a regular sized head. It’s not HGH or steroids. I’ve puzzled over him for years. The inertia of his work is flabbergasting and yet it seems somehow irresistible to the grossly suburban tastes of most awards committees. I nearly cried when I saw his new book, Flotsam.
FJS: And why is that, Mr. Bitterman?
BIT: The weight of it, your honor. It was like drowning in Winslow Homer’s bath water. And that’s sort of how I figured it out. EPO. It’s a protein hormone that stimulates red blood cell production. Great in high altitude, or under water. And hard to detect, if you’re not looking for it.
FJS: So by what measure can we reasonably assume Mr. Wiesner’s association with this substance?
BIT: His breath, sir. I met Wiesner at the Book Expo a couple years back and his breath smelled like the dumpster behind The Olive Garden. That’s a side effect of EPO, sir. Garlic breath.
FJS: Do you visit The Olive Garden dumpster often, Mr. Bitterman?
BIT: Well, I live in my Buick, your honor. I usually dine at Costco, you know, all the sample trays. It’s quite civilized. But I’ve had company of late, and it’s not been easy for me.
FJS: Company? In your Buick?
BIT: Rafael Palmeiro, your honor. He’s been staying with me, and man can that dude eat! Loves that cheap Italian crap.